The Polish government is super-sizing Warsaw. But bigger might not mean better

The Warsaw skyline. Image: Getty.

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party has announced plans to add 32 new municipalities to the city of Warsaw. This would increase the area of the city fivefold, making it significantly larger than Greater London with less than a third of the population. The move has been labelled a power grab by the city’s mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, as it could help Law and Justice gain control over the city in next year’s local elections.

Political machinations aside, though, could the plan actually make Warsaw a better city for its residents?

If the goal is economic growth, then there would need to be clear signals that a larger urban area would attract both businesses and households. True, there is strong evidence that large cities are a key source of productivity and economic dynamism. But it does not follow that making cities larger makes them more successful.

In fact, it’s probably the other way around: successful cities tend to grow economically – and that growth leads to them become large cities. While there are examples, notably in China, where entire, pre-planned cities have been successful in many respects, there’s a real risk of pre-planned cities becoming ghost cities – boarded-up shells of what might have been.

In democratic, capitalist societies, cities tend to grow or contract depending on economic expansion or decline. For example, the shrinkage of Glasgow and Sheffield in the UK was not promoted or planned – it came about as a result of the grinding poverty and lack of opportunities associated with industrial decline, which caused people to seek their fortune elsewhere.

Going large

So what drives the growth of cities? Economists highlight the importance of “urban agglomeration”: in other words, the economic benefits of firms being located close together. If a particular cluster of firms becomes very successful – perhaps due to new technology or proximity to cutting-edge research outfits – this attracts skilled workers to the area and makes the commercial sector all the more competitive. This, in turn, attracts more firms and more skilled workers, leading to a virtuous circle of increasing productivity and prosperity.

So, a critical issue for Poland is whether there are clear agglomeration economies to be exploited through expansion. If, for example, Warsaw’s economy is currently bursting at the seams – with rocketing house prices and spiralling commercial land values, say – and the only thing constraining urban expansion is planning restrictions (such as the greenbelt around London), then it would make sense to lift these restrictions and plan for expansion in a rational and coordinated way.

This would help to relieve upward pressure on property prices, making the city cheaper for residents and helping firms to become more competitive. But without clear signs of growing agglomeration economies, planned expansion may not be met by actual expansion – at least not of the sort associated with some of the world’s most economically successful cities.

It’s also worth considering the impact that Warsaw’s growth might have on other parts of the country. The UK experience suggests that concentrating wealth and economic activity in a single city can lead to higher levels of inequality for the country as a whole. What’s more, as property prices rise, low-income families are pushed further away from the city centre, making it harder to access jobs and amenities.

The London bubble. Image: NASA's Marshall Space Flight Centre/Flickr/creative commons.

Such inequalities can worsen political and social divides. London has essentially become a country of its own, with distinctive culture, demographics and social networks. Indeed, recent research looking at the patterns of telephone calls shows that Londoners rarely make calls to other parts of the UK.

So, even if the expansion of Warsaw was successful for the city, it could be a zero sum game for the country as a whole, due to rising inequality and deepening social divides.

Going green

Perhaps the motivation behind the Law and Justice party’s plan is environmental: increasing population density could help to reduce carbon emissions. Yet the evidence for environmental benefits of this kind of urban expansion is mixed, to say the least.

If the addition of 32 new municipalities results in urban sprawl, this will increase commuting distances and carbon emissions. Also, if urban expansion comes at the cost of depopulation in smaller towns and rural areas, the carbon emissions from the depopulated areas can remain surprisingly persistent – a fact that is often overlooked.

Even if increased population density is achieved, some of the most sophisticated models of city structure and carbon emissions suggest relatively modest gains, compared with say a well-coordinated network of medium sized towns and small cities. This may be partly due to the congestion and traffic jams that plague large cities, which can greatly reduce energy efficiency.

Also, some sources of renewable energy work best for relatively small population centres. This is partly due to energy storage issues. While it might be feasible to build an energy storage facility to regulate the energy supplied by wind turbines for a small city or town, this might not be possible on a larger scale. There are also the health impacts of pollution associated with large cities, which need to be taken into account.

The truth is, neither economic growth nor environmental improvement are guaranteed rewards of urban expansion. In fact, increasing the size of Warsaw on such an ambitious scale could cause problems that affect the whole country for many years to come. Of course, the proposed changes may amount to nothing more than tinkering with municipal borders for political ends. Gerrymandering is never a desirable political endeavour. But in this case, it might be preferable to misplaced plans for urban expansion.The Conversation

Gwilym Pryce is professor of urban economics & social statistics, and director of the Sheffield Methods Institute, at the University of Sheffield.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image:

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.